Show and tell

Dec. 30, 2013
Walk into any repair shop and you’re likely to spot an example of Ramon Elder’s work sitting right there on the counter, mounted on a piece of Plexiglas. 

Walk into any repair shop and you’re likely to spot an example of Ramon Elder’s work sitting right there on the counter, mounted on a piece of Plexiglas. Designed and produced by Elder, the ubiquitous timing belt display replicates in plastic how a single overhead cam is driven by the engine.   Go ahead and turn the gears, feel how the tensioner works, pull on the heavy rubber belt — that’s what it’s meant for. 

Ostensibly used to demonstrate Gates Corporation’s timing belts, this component is such a major part of the modern motor, explaining how it works with other elements becomes crucial. “That’s why I built this,” Elder explains. “It’s not something you can open the hood and see.”

Not only did Elder develop the display, he patented it. “It shows all of the components working together, so you can explain timing,” he proudly points out. “You can see how one full turn of the cam is two full turns of the crank. You can also show where the seals are at, because people are thinking you’re padding the buck when you say ‘we should do these seals while we’re there.’ The bottom line is you’re just trying to do the job right; you don’t want it coming back.”

As head of Elder Auto in Denver, Elder hit upon the idea for a display after “eating” an expensive engine rebuild. “We weren’t educated enough to know that there’s only one way to do timing belt replacements, and that’s to replace everything,” he ruefully recalls. “Of course something else failed and took out a five valve per cylinder motor, and it cost me over $2,000 to make it right for the customer. I wasn’t about to pass it on, but we learned our lesson; I wasn’t going to let that happen again.”

Many cars now have timing belts, but Elder admits changing them probably isn’t even on consumers’ radar. “We fail (as an industry) if we don’t educate people to know that timing belts should be changed at 60,000 miles, 90,000 miles, etc. If they’ve been to our shop and we haven’t recommended it, (our shop) has failed.”

It’s no wonder his motto is “the educated customer is a return customer.”

Starting out as a Firestone technician, Elder eventually moved into management; after 13 years he decided to try doing it on his own. Taking over a gas station, he eventually expanded into another before consolidating into a larger purpose-built facility. “I bought this location to get out of the gas business,” says Elder, so a new name was needed. “My wife goes, ‘Just call it Elder Auto.’ I said, ‘Geez, I guess that works!’”

A play on El Dorado, the mythic city of gold sought by Spanish conquistadors, the name may have changed, but Elder’s sense of service didn’t. “(At the station) we washed the windows, patted customers on the back, asked how their kids were. A lot of times you’d see (the clients) twice a week, so you really got to know them.  In my opinion you still have to give that care, you still have to get that involved. Get to know your people.”

Which of course lends itself to good old fashioned word-of-mouth. “It’s the old gas station mentality that made people feel good and tell their friends,” Elder states. “There’s really nothing we specialize in other than making sure we give the best customer service that we can.”

While Elder Auto doesn’t specialize in any particular make, Elder notes they recently had to acquire more diagnostics and new technicians to handle an increase in German and European cars coming in -- and that leads to some new fashioned word-of-mouth. “We don’t go out there and track it down,” says Elder, “but we also advertise on our website. If you look into our reviews, what people think about our business, it’s been really amazing. The way we’re staying busy is with the reviews.”

Elder acknowledges that social networking is a rapidly rising factor. “Everyone talks about everything; if you do good, one person will talk about you. If you do bad, ten will talk about you.” But even in cyberspace there are ways to help manage discourse; Elder prefers a system called DemandForce. “It gives you the opportunity to see the reviews before they’re posted,” he explains, “and to thank them and comment on them. With the other ones you have no control over that—(the reviews) are going to land.”

So far Elder admits the Internet doesn’t play a bigger role in his business other than being a method for scheduling appointments. “We really need to get someone to watch our website. It’s actually giving us more to do.”

But it also took the Internet to help market Elder’s timing belt display idea. Armed with pictures of his invention, he went to Las Vegas and hit the floor of the SEMA convention, but to no avail. “I walked around to all the different vendors, then contacted them online,” he reports. “I tried like the dickens to get them to see the value, because when I had it online, people would go and look at it and go, ‘Oh my god, I want one!’”

Finally Gates Corporation took note and eventually ordered over 20,000 units, found in shops and stores across the U.S., Canada and Europe. Since then Elder has developed other displays, including one on brake systems. Having hung onto the manufacturing rights, it’s almost become a second job.

“I’m still here from 6:30 to 7:00 in the morning till that time at night,” Elder reports. “I still get involved with every car that comes in the shop, I still see what’s going one and who’s working on it. If there’s a problem I get involved…but I’ve got a pretty good staff. They know what to do when I’m not here. I’m really lucky. I just wear a couple of hats (because) these displays open a dialog. These kinds of things make a difference and help people remember you. They make a difference when they tell a friend. This shows you how far show-n-tell still goes.”

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